Why blacks are homeschooling their kids

“Black families have become one of the fastest-growing demographics in homeschooling,” writes Jessica Huseman in the Hechinger Report. Black  parents cite low expectations for their children or “dissatisfaction with how their children—especially boys—are treated.”

Marvell Robinson, now 7, was the only black student in his kindergarten and first-grade classes at a San Diego elementary school. His “Asperger syndrome, a form of autism that affects social skills, made him a target of “curiosity and cruelty,” writes Huseman.

Marvell Robinson plays outside the San Diego Natural History Museum (Photo by Vanessa Robinson)

Marvell Robinson plays outside the San Diego Natural History Museum after a field trip. (Photo by Vanessa Robinson)

“I just thought maybe I could do a better job myself,” said his mother, Vanessa Robinson. In September, Robinson adjusted her nursing schedule so she could teach her second grader at home. Her husband, a sous chef, continues to work full-time.

“The schools want little black boys to behave like little white girls,” said Cheryl Fields-Smith, an education professor at the University of Georgia. “I think black families who are in a position to homeschool can use homeschooling to avoid the issues of their children being labeled ‘trouble makers’ and the suggestion that their children need special-education services because they learn and behave differently.”

Ama Mazama, who teaches African American Studies at Temple, surveyed black homeschoolers for a 2012 report published in the Journal of Black Studies. Most are trying to protect their children from racism at school, she found. Black children “are treated as though they are not as intelligent and cannot perform as well, and therefore the standards for them should be lower.”

We’re not Chinese

Chinese “super-schools” are a myth, writes Diane Ravitch in a New York Times review of Yong Zhao’s Who’s Afraid of the Big Bad Dragon? Why China Has the Best (and Worst) Education System in the World.

Education Secretary Arne Duncan, President Obama and legislators want to be like the Chinese, Ravitch writes.

Why should we be number twenty-nine in the world in mathematics when Shanghai is number one? Why are our scores below those of Estonia, Poland, Ireland, and so many other nations? Duncan was sure that the scores on international tests were proof that we were falling behind the rest of the world and that they predicted economic disaster for the United States. What Duncan could not admit was that, after a dozen years, the Bush–Obama strategy of testing and punishing teachers and schools had failed.

China can’t maintain its economic growth without innovation, argues Zhao. That won’t “unless it abandons its test-based education system, now controlled by gaokao, the all-important college entrance exams.”

Zhao “does a wonderful job of challenging the lazy nostrums peddled by those suffused with China envy,” writes Rick Hess.

The Chinese education system is “an effective machine to instill what the government wants students to learn,” Zhao writes. Students excel because of “families’ high expectations” and students’ “hard work and diligence.”

Chinese immigrant workers’ children study in Shanghai. Photo: Nir Elias / Reuters / Corbis

It’s true that the U.S. has been a world leader despite mediocre scores on international tests, writes Neerav Kingsland on relinquishment. And “rote learning and high-pressure cultures” are nothing to emulate. However, Ravitch presents no evidence that testing reduces innovation and creativity, he writes.

If China isn’t innovative, is it the testing? “It’s more plausible that China’s rote learning and testing regimes are manifestations of their culture,” writes Kingsland.

While Ravitch argues against top-down reforms, she thinks her vision of schooling “will be good for everyone,” he writes. Ravitch and Zhao call for:

schools where students produce books, videos, and art, where they are encouraged to explore and experiment … the individual strengths of every student are developed, not under pressure, but by their intrinsic motivation … schools where the highest value is creativity, where students are encouraged to be … confident, curious, and creative.

Not every family sees creativity as the highest value, responds Kingsland. While innovation, creativity, originality and invention are “core values of our nation,” so is liberty.

“Educators should be able to develop . . . different types of schools that meet the different needs of the millions of children in our country,” he concludes. Some schools will have creativity as the highest value. Others may not.

Parents choose special-ed charters

Charters designed for students with disabilities are renewing the “inclusion debate,” reports Arianna Prothero in Ed Week.

A student adds a Ninja Turtle head to his chart as a reward for completing a class activity at Arizona Autism Charter School. —Patrick Breen for Education Week
A student adds a Ninja Turtle head to his chart as a reward for completing a class activity at Arizona Autism Charter School.
—Patrick Breen for Education Week

Diana Diaz-Harrison opened a charter school in Phoenix for her son, who has autism, and similar students. The Arizona Autism Charter School, which enrolls 90 students, “is among dozens of charters nationwide that focus on serving students with disabilities,” writes Prothero.

The federal Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, or IDEA, requires that students with disabilities be taught in the “least restrictive environment.” That usually means mainstreaming students.

Some parents prefer a specialized school designed for their children’s needs.

About 100 charters are designed for special-ed students, according to the  Center for Education Reform. While some are disability-specific, others “serve children with a range of disabilities as well as their typically developing peers.”

Several years ago, I visited charters designed for disabled and mainstream students in Michigan and California as a freelance writer on Unique Schools for Unique Students, a Center on Reinventing Public Education book on charters for special-needs students.

Not everyone thinks mainstreaming is the best strategy.

“A majority of kids with disabilities are performing very poorly—very, very poorly—where they receive all or most of their instruction in the mainstream classroom,” said Doug Fuchs, a special education professor at Vanderbilt University in Nashville. “Inclusion must account for whether or not students are profiting educationally from the mainstream setting.”

Many students at Arizona Autism Charter School were doing poorly in mainstream classrooms, says Diaz-Harrison.

Special-ed co-teachers may function as “very expensive finger pointers,” writes Peter DeWitt, who’s taught inclusion classes, in Ed Week. The Goldilocks quandary remains: “How do we find a balance between having higher expectations without making those expectations so high that we continue to make a marginalized population of students feel even more marginalized?”

Overprotective parents raise ‘lazy’ teens

Overinvolved parents are raising “lazy,” unmotivated teen-age boys, writes therapist Adam Price in the Wall Street Journal.

Parents complain their children — especially their sons — aren’t achieving their “potential.” His practice is seeing more “college students, home for a year because when the parents, tutors, coaches and, yes, therapists were no longer around, they failed.”

It’s hard to be motivated by someone else’s goals. Teens crave autonomy, Price writes. Many parents won’t let their children make their own decisions and live with the consequences.

. . . the lack of motivation is not the root problem: For many children, it is the lack of accountability. Parents remove that when they try to protect their children from suffering in the future by doing everything possible to make them successful today

He suggests parents stop telling their kids they’re smart or too “special” to take out the garbage. Set limits. Don’t “saddle children with unrealistic expectations.”

What works for small high schools

Personalization, high expectations and dedicated, flexible teachers are essential to the success of New York City’s most effective small high schools, report NYU’s Research Alliance.

“Small schools of choice” (SSCs) have improved graduation rates, according to previous research.

School themes, such as law, the environment or sports careers, didn’t play a factor in success, the study concluded. Some students were attracted to the theme, but “it can be a turnoff to others who wind up in the school because of the whims of the high school placement process,” notes SchoolBook.

Many of the success strategies can be used in schools of any size, researchers said.

Parent involvement doesn’t help much

Don’t Help Your Kids With Their Homework, writes Dana Goldstein in The Atlantic. And, if you do, don’t expect it to make much difference.

“Most measurable forms of parental involvement seem to yield few academic dividends for kids, or even to backfire — regardless of a parent’s race, class, or level of education,” writes Goldstein, citing research by Keith Robinson, a University of Texas sociology professor,  Angel L. Harris, a Duke sociology professor.

The researchers combed through nearly three decades’ worth of longitudinal surveys of American parents and tracked 63 different measures of parental participation in kids’ academic lives, from helping them with homework, to talking with them about college plans, to volunteering at their schools.

“No clear connection exists between parental involvement and improved student performance,” they conclude in The Broken Compass.

Helping your kids with homework won’t raise their test scores, the study concluded. “Once kids enter middle school, parental help with homework can actually bring test scores down,” writes Goldstein.

What does help: Requesting a teacher with a good reputation, “reading aloud to young kids (fewer than half of whom are read to daily) and talking with teenagers about college plans.” 

Robinson asked UT statistics undergrads  how their parents contributed to their achievements.

He found that most had few or no memories of their parents pushing or prodding them or getting involved at school in formal ways. Instead, students described mothers and fathers who set high expectations and then stepped back.

I suspect the parent involvement that really matters happens at home. My husband’s mother told him to “be the best,” he said in her eulogy. She didn’t say, “try.” Like Yoda, she told him to do it.

If parents teach certain values — set goals and work to achieve them, take responsibility for the consequences of your actions, do your own damn homework — their children are likely to do well in school and in life. It doesn’t matter if Mom volunteers for the PTA bake sale or not. 

Expulsion is ‘heartbreaking but necessary’

Chicago charter schools expel 6 of every 1,000 students compared to .5 for public schools, the district reported. “At three campuses in the Noble Network of Charter Schools, which has faced backlash over its disciplinary approach, anywhere from 2 percent to nearly 5 percent of students were expelled in the last school year,” reports the Chicago Tribune.

Expulsion is heartbreaking but necessary, argues Michael Milkie, founder and superintendent of the Noble schools, in a Chicago Sun-Times commentary.

Milkie and his wife taught in Chicago public schools before starting Noble 15 years ago. They saw a disruptive minority make it difficult to teach and learn. Their 14 charter schools are known for strict discipline.  

We believed that the best way to support students’ success in college, career and life was to run schools with a culture of high expectations and personal accountability. 

. . . We’ve made a promise to our parents that their children will learn in a safe, calm and focused environment. We promise that our classrooms and halls will be free from violence and disruptive behavior. We promise that we will socially and academically support our students while holding high expectations for them despite the many social issues they face.

Noble schools don’t have metal detectors, police, bullying or fighting, Milkie writes. Attendance and graduation rates are high and 90 percent of graduates go on to college.

Students “who threaten the safety and environment of others” are expelled, he writes. The network’s expulsion rate is about 1 percent per year.  Noble will not “compromise the culture and learning environment of the 99 percent of students for the disruptive 1 percent.”

The well-meaning campaign to reduce suspensions and expulsions may backfire, writes Michael Goldstein on Puzzl_Ed, the Match Education blog. If a school environment is “crazy,” teachers will leave. “Kids in the most troubled schools typically lack choice.”

Goldstein remembers heartbreaking expulsion decisions in Match High‘s early years.

Fritz was carrying a weapon which he said . . . was to protect him from gang members in his neighborhood, and he would never use it in our school community. We believed him. We had a clear rule, though, and he was expelled. . . . You end up thinking crazy things like “Should our students be able to check their weapons at the door, like a saloon in the Wild West, and pick them up on the way home, because the police in Boston are utterly unable to protect (minority) kids from gangs?”

. . . There’s part of an educator that thinks “Hey if that was my kid, and he had to live in that unsafe neighborhood, and the reality was that yes, carrying a weapon poses obvious risks (of escalation, of arrest), but also genuinely also serves as a deterrent so he can go to and from school without humiliation, what would I tell my kid to do?” It’s not always an easy question.

Schools should be clear about rules and consequences, Goldstein concludes. Let parents decide whether they want a strict or lax regime.

Many Chicago and suburban public schools aren’t reporting campus violence, despite a state law, reports NBC.

The class system

In Class Rules: Exposing Inequality in American High Schools, sociologist Peter W. Cookson Jr. describe how students’ socioeconomic status “affects much more than academic outcomes,” writes reviewer Richard Kahlenberg.

High schools “pass on class position through rites of passage that instill in students the values, dispositions, and beliefs of their class,” writes Cookson. Certain schools groom students to be leaders, while others channel adolescents into the laboring class.

High schools have a “latent curriculum,” a set of rules and norms that are written in considerable measure by fellow students, argues Cookson.

School buildings send “unspoken messages.” “Do I go to a school that is beautiful, well equipped, and mirrors back to me a sense of privilege,” he asks, “or do I go to a school that reflects back to me poverty, disorganization, and confusion?”

Duncan: Demand more of kids

U.S. parents need to demand more of their children, writes New York Times columnist Tom Friedman. We’re raising a generation of slackers, he writes.

“Teachers are held to impossible standards” and students aren’t held accountable at all, complained a seventh-grade English teacher in the Washington Post‘s Answer Sheet.

I set my expectations high, I kept my classroom structured, I tutored students, I provided extra practice and I tried to make class fun. … (The principal) handed me a list of about 10 students, all of whom had D’s or F’s. . . . I walked her through my grade sheets that showed not low scores but a failure to turn in work — a lack of responsibility. I showed her my tutoring logs, my letters to parents, only to be interrogated further.

Eventually, the meeting came down to two quotes that I will forever remember as the defining slogans for public education: “They are not allowed to fail.” “If they have D’s or F’s, there is something that you are not doing for them.” . . .  I suppose I was not giving them the answers. I was not physically picking up their hands to write for them. I was not following them home each night to make sure they did their work on time. I was not excusing their lack of discipline.

A high school teacher in Oregon told Friedman she used to have one or two students per class who wouldn’t do the work. Now it’s 10 or 15.  Expectations keep sliding. A failing student said, “You don’t seem to realize I have two hours a night of Facebook and over 4,000 text messages a month to deal with. How do you expect me to do all this work?”

Education Secretary Arne Duncan gave a “feel-bad” speech to the National Assessment Governing Board’s Education Summit for Parent Leaders.

In 2009, President Obama met with President Lee of South Korea and asked him about his biggest challenge in education. President Lee answered without hesitation: parents in South Korea were ‘too demanding.’ Even his poorest parents demanded a world-class education for their children, and he was having to spend millions of dollars each year to teach English to students in first grade, because his parents won’t let him wait until second grade. … I [wish] our biggest challenge here in the U.S. was too many parents demanding excellent schools.

South Korea probably has the most intense education parents in the world. But what about U.S. parents? Are they failing to demand excellent schools? Raising low achievers with high self-esteem?

LA’s Parent College raises expectations

At Parent College, which serves low-income Los Angeles neighborhoods, parents learn how to improve their children’s college prospects, reports  PBS NewsHour.

Nadia Solis, a single mother and high school dropout, spends one Saturday each month during the school year at Parent College learning about learning. Her children attend 99th Street Elementary, one of the 17 low-performing schools now managed by the nonprofit Partnership for Los Angeles Schools.

The Partnership invests 10 percent of its budget on family and community engagement. Test scores are rising.

One day, Solis told her daughter to study hard so she could go to college.

SOLIS: Her answer to me was, if you didn’t finish high school, why are you telling me? Well, what is this that I have to do it?

I just gave her a simple — a simple answer of, well, I just couldn’t. But the minute that I had Parent College the next week, it was my first question to my teacher: What can I do to get my GED?

Solis has earned her GED.